A life, and death, faced with dignity
"'I've always been on the playing field of life,' said former West Palm Beach Mayor Pat Pepper."
By Fran Hathaway,
Special to The Palm Beach Post
Tuesday, August 19, 2022
Pat Pepper seemed to have it all. Blond and beautiful, intelligent and strong-minded, she appeared indomitable. So when friends learned that she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- they agreed that if anyone could defeat a fatal illness, it was Pat.
She couldn't. Ms. Pepper died Saturday, but not without a fight. Time after time, doctors told her she would die in two to five years. Time after time, she rejected the edict. Call it denial or call it courage, her refusal to accept a death sentence was typical of the resolve with which she faced many challenges.
As mayor of West Palm Beach in 1988 and 1989, Ms. Pepper determined to rouse the city from its long sleep by proposing a strong-mayor form of government. When fellow commissioners didn't agree, she initiated a petition drive, and in 1991 voters agreed with her.
As mayor, she persuaded officials to move the planned Kravis Center for the Performing Arts from the Palm Beach Community College campus in Lake Worth to a site on the then-Downtown/Uptown property, making the Kravis a catalyst for development.
A few years later, while working in Miami, Ms. Pepper knew that West Palm Beach was going to issue a request for proposals to develop the Downtown/Uptown land and encouraged developer Steve Ross, who had become "the love of my life," to consider it. The result was CityPlace, and few people knew how central her role was.
"I didn't want any credit," she told me "and I didn't want people to know how involved I was because it might have adversely affected the project."
Pat had made enemies while mayor by taking on the male power brokers used to running the city more for their benefit than the residents'. She was surprised by the sexism she encountered. "While growing up," she said, "I never knew the playbook was different for males than females. I was just taught to do my best. It wasn't until I got into West Palm Beach politics that I confronted double standards in public life."
Pat was a tough lady, and I mean that as a compliment. In the early 1980s, women were moving into previously all-male positions yet were not welcomed into all-male networking organizations. In 1982, she and a handful of like-minded women founded Executive Women of the Palm Beaches to fulfill that purpose. The organization is going strong 20 years later.
In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew struck, Pat was director of community development for the Florida Department of Community Affairs. She offered to help with recovery efforts and then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed her state liaison to the federal government as well as city and county governments. Within hours, she was surveying the devastation from an army helicopter.
Pat experienced the first hint of illness one morning in 1993, when she got in her car and couldn't turn the key in the ignition. She had been suffering from fatigue but blamed it on 60- to 70-hour workweeks during the recovery effort.
Initially, doctors could find no specific cause. Eventually, they diagnosed ALS. In later years, Ms. Pepper came to believe that while working amid the toxins released by the hurricane she had contracted Lyme disease, and that it could cause muscle-wasting similar to ALS. Despite steadily diminishing strength, a year-long course of intravenous antibiotics and quadriplegia, she never gave up her search for a cure.
I remember the day in early 1996 that she and I and Lois Frankel -- now West Palm Beach's mayor -- had lunch at Chuck and Harold's in Palm Beach and she told us she had ALS. We were shocked. Already, however, she was having difficulty walking and using her right arm. One morning in 1997, she stumbled so badly that she fell, suffering a concussion, a torn rotator cuff and a sprained wrist. As her condition worsened, the wedding she had been planning with Mr. Ross was called off.
In 2001, Pat moved to Sedona, Ariz., to be near her daughter, Jennifer, who was at her side throughout the long struggle. In 2002 and the early part of this year, she followed a daily regimen intended to awaken hundreds of muscles and thought she was making progress. When others helped her to a standing position, she could take a few steps on her own. In May, however, she contracted a severe respiratory illness she couldn't shake.
Over the years, Pat and I had kept in touch via telephone and then sporadic e-mails. In early 2003, her messages sounded positive. In June, when I told her I had left The Post to start my own business -- Life stories, in which I write people's biographies -- she e-mailed back immediately:
"Love your new career path. Please let me know how I can become a client. I have a lot of information from the last 10 years." Then came two heartbreaking sentences: "I am coherent, but nothing else works. I am working with Hospice and putting my affairs in order."
We scheduled a telephone interview for July 3, Pat's 58th birthday, and talked for two hours. Jennifer served as intermediary, since her mother could not speak clearly. Two weeks later, Pat lost the ability to speak altogether. Last Saturday, she slipped away peacefully.
Pat fought her illness with determination and dignity, rarely revealing her pain and anger. In a 1998 interview published in Good Housekeeping magazine, however, she told Donna Hanover that she had gone through "a time of being very angry with God" as her dreams for the future were shattered. "Do I cry?" she said. "Yes. But I've always been on the playing field of life, not on the sidelines. I've learned that the field is never level, never fair, but you get out there and play anyway."
Source: ęBy Fran Hathaway, Special to The Palm Beach Post